The end of affirmative action has triggered a reconsideration of legacy admissions. When universities extend advantages to the families of donors and alums, they discriminate against others, especially lower-income and Black students.
Legacy admissions began to get more attention after the Department of Education initiated a civil rights investigation in July 2023 into Harvard’s legacy practice. That was a good beginning, but donors and alums are also responsible for legacy preferences.
Let’s be clear: If it is wrong for universities to give preference to alums and donors, it is wrong for alums and donors to seek those privileges.
When donations to a university are followed by preferential admissions, donors are complicit in the discrimination, inequality and injustice that follow. When donors give with an eye toward future privileges for themselves or for their offspring, they may be engaging in moral licensing: doing good to do bad. Their generosity does not entitle them to advantages that deprive others of opportunities.
It is not surprising that many elite institutions still offer legacy advantages. The policy is a win-win — for donors, alums and the receiving institutions.
But there are losses for the students not admitted, for our sense of justice and for other universities that might have received the donations.